STRYPER – Loud ‘N’ Clear
Stryper live at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood, California on November 16th, 2013
On January 14th, 2013, it was revealed that American Christian heavy metal outfit Stryper had inked an album contract with Naples, Italy-based classic rock and metal label Frontiers Music Srl. The deal encompassed the issue of Second Coming (May 2013) – a collection which consisted of re-recordings of earlier material – and seventh studio effort No More Hell To Pay (November 2013), not to mention the release of a live opus: September 2014’s Live At The Whisky.
“We’ve recorded and released a few live albums over the years in big settings, and so I wanted to do something really different,” explains Michael Sweet, vocalist and guitarist of Stryper. “My original plan was to do a live rehearsal in Nashville (Tennessee), where you’ve got footage of the band playing. Then we would’ve brought in some people to sit around while we were playing, and then gone into a sound-stage, and did maybe a hundred person-plus live performance. That was my original idea and goal, but that didn’t work out. It just so happened that we were playing the Whisky – that was on the books – and I felt like it would be a great alternative to my original idea, to perform and record the Whisky show.
“The reason being was it’s a historical landmark; if you go back to the history of the band – pre-Stryper when we were Roxx Regime – that’s where we began, was the Whisky. I played there for the first time when I was 16-years-old and then played there numerous times over the years, so it feels like such an integral and important part of our history. I thought that it would be fitting, and the band did as well. We thought it would be fitting to perform there, record it, and make it available as a live DVD / CD. That’s what we did, and the rest is history. Not to use an old cliché, but it really is. The rest is history. It was a perfect, intimate setting, a sold-out show, and a great place to capture a live performance of the band.”
On that inaugural occasion performing at the Whisky, Roxx Regime supported DuBrow. “My memory of that show, of Kevin (DuBrow, Quiet Riot vocalist)…,” the frontman begins. “Really the only time I met Kevin, and sadly as we all know, he’s passed. I would’ve liked to have known him better, but we apparently got a little under his skin that night and really for a simple reason: just because we were using – according to him – too much hairspray. The dressing rooms upstairs are real tight, and close to each other. We were in our dressing room getting ready to go on, and I remember he kind of kicked the door open and got on us with lots of expletives, saying that we were using too much hairspray. We were all just kind of sitting there dumbfounded and shocked, and thinking ‘Who is this guy? Why is he telling us we’re using too much hairspray?’ It was kind of funny, though. When we were opening for DuBrow at the Whisky, that was a time when I was 16. I was still a wee lad, and we were Roxx Regime at the time. Actually, if memory serves me right, we might’ve been just Roxx. We might not have even had the ‘Regime’ in there.”
Hairspray usage was the norm during the late 70s and early 80s across the Sunset Strip. “We certainly used a lot, probably not any more than any other hair band on the Strip,” Michael judges. “I doubt that we used any more than Mötley Crüe, or Poison certainly. I’m sure Poison used more than we did, but we used a lot. I don’t use any now at all, but I always joke about my brother still using it. My brother still uses a lot of hairspray and that’s fine, but you know what man? It was funny. Those were the hair days; every guy in town who came to the Strip was using lots of hairspray.”
Browsing through old photographs likely provides much amusement. “It does,” the singer agrees. “It’s funny at times, it’s embarrassing at times, it’s sickening at times (laughs). There are some photos I can’t even look at. My family, whenever they decide to pop in an old Stryper video or whatever, I can’t watch it. That’s my opportunity to exit stage left, go run an errand or something, and do something else.”
As a teen, Michael remembers visiting the Sunset Strip himself. “I started going to the Strip when I was 13, going and checking out bands,” he shares. “I always looked much older than I was – I never had any issues getting in. I was much taller and dressed up; my hair was poofed up and rocked out, I had a lot of make-up on, and was dressed to the Hilton. I remember going from club to club, going to Gazzarri’s and watching this band perform, and then walking down the street to the Whisky and watching this band perform, and then getting in the car and going to the Starwood and watching Yesterday & Today perform (Y&T), and then going to the Troubadour for drinks and after-show, late-show and watching W.A.S.P. perform.
“It was an insane time, when you literally had your options of seeing Ratt, Mötley Crüe, Yesterday & Today, W.A.S.P., Poison, Stryper, and all these bands – and there are so many that I’m not mentioning – in one night. It really was a special and unique time that I don’t think will ever be duplicated or repeated ever again.”
The fact that a whole plethora of household names – then relatively unknown – were performing at the same time in such a small area is incredible to consider. “It was,” the Stryper mainman reaffirms. “It was all in one place. Gazzarri’s and the Whisky are within walking distance, and the Roxy is right in-between. Obviously the Rainbow Bar and Grill, that was another place. The Roxy Theater, a lot of bands played there, and then the Rainbow where everyone ate – that’s still there. They’re all right there within blocks of each other, and then if you go down Doheny to Santa Monica – you walk from the Sunset Strip to Santa Monica down Doheny – you’re at the Troubadour. You take a left, and then there’s the Troubadour right there on the corner.
“The Starwood was a little further down. You could walk that, but it’d be a pretty lengthy walk. I know we made the walk many times, but between those five venues – Roxy, the Whisky, Gazzarri’s, Starwood, and Troubadour alone – every band from that time period was there, and the list just goes on and on and on. If you go back in time and you research from 1976-7 to 1983-4, you’re gonna be astonished at the bands that came out of that scene, and that’s what was really cool about it. You could go see all of these bands, and be a part of that movement. It really was a movement, and a pretty powerful one too.”
Kiss bassist Gene Simmons claimed in a September 2014 interview with Esquire magazine that the rock movement as a whole is dead. “I don’t think so,” Michael counters. “I think Gene’s coming from a different perspective – he’s looking at it from a financial sense, I think. I could be wrong, but that’s what I got from everything that he’s said, and I agree with him. I think it is kind of dead, financially speaking. It’s very difficult for rock bands to make any money at what they do in the ‘music business.’ You have to get really creative, and even then it’s difficult. It helps obviously when you’re a band like Kiss, a legendary, classic band. You’ve got such a large core following that you don’t have to worry as much as the up and coming bands that don’t have a following at all. That’s the problem.
“Those are the people that I feel sorry for, because they’re gonna have a really tough go at it. You’re definitely gonna be applying that starving artist saying or tag to them, because most likely they are gonna be starving. Regarding other genres, there are other genres that are thriving. Country music is thriving obviously, and hip-hop is thriving. I don’t think rock is dead in a musical sense, though. I think some of the best music to emerge in the past 40 years has emerged in the past two or three years – I love a lot of the albums that I’m hearing coming out. I think that musically speaking it’s thriving and it’s very much alive, but financially speaking it is dying or dead as Gene put it. Again, I think that that was what he was trying to convey.”
Some of that aforementioned ’best music’ encompasses a number of platters. “Mr. Big just put a really good album, which I like (The Stories We Could Tell, September 2014),” the axeman cites. “Dream Theater put out a great album (self-titled, September 2013), Queensrÿche put out an amazing album (self-titled, June 2013) – one of the best albums that they’ve done in the past ten years by far, if not longer. Bands like Black Country Communion. I’m not as big a fan of California Breed as I am of Black Country Communion, but I like California Breed because I’m a big Glenn Hughes fan. I love Glenn Hughes; I think the man can do no wrong. Even if he sings a bad song, it still sounds great because he’s such a talent.
“He’s an incredible musician and an incredible singer, and I’ve always loved his style and his sound. I was just instantly drawn to it the first time I heard it, and he still sounds amazing. He’s in his 60s, and he still sounds absolutely phenomenal. He hasn’t missed a note; he hasn’t skipped a beat. I mean, it’s incredible. I love Black Country Communion; I think that was brilliant, one of my favourite albums to come out in a long, long time. The list just goes on and on. I mean, there are some really bad albums too. I don’t know if I’m gonna apply the names to those, but there are a lot of albums that are just kind of recycled and thrown out there, and not well done.
“There are bands that are still putting out great music, though. Ratt, their last album (Infestation, April 2010) was one of their best albums in a long time, so it shows me that rock still is very much alive and bands are capable of digging deep within themselves to make that happen and keep rock alive. Stryper is one of those bands. We strive to put out really good albums; well-produced, well-written, well thought out, and hopefully in line and on track with our old material and every bit as good. The goal is to surpass it though, and so hopefully it’s better. We’re getting ready to make a new album; we’re gonna go into the studio for pre-production in mid-January 2015, and start recording on the 1st of February. Hopefully, we’re gonna put out the best record of our career.”
With respect to raw album sales, Stryper’s newest to date – No More Hell To Pay – would’ve achieved Gold certification had it been released during the 80s. “I think so,” Michael seconds. “I think it would’ve even been a platinum album, and I’ve always said this. If that had followed To Hell With The Devil (October 1986), absolutely. There’s no question about it, and I’m not saying that in a dated sense. I don’t think it’s dated at all. It’s retro. It’s got the old school sound and flavour to it, but yet it’s got a new school twist in the production and the tones. Yeah though, man. I believe that if that had followed To Hell With The Devil, I think it would’ve surpassed To Hell With The Devil in sales – To Hell With The Devil is our biggest selling album.
“I think No More Hell To Pay would have been if it had come out in 1988 instead of In God We Trust (June 1988). I think In God We Trust could’ve outsold To Hell With The Devil had it not been overproduced. There were some really good songs on that, but it was just overproduced. It became sterile, and it lost some of its spontaneity and its rawness. Yeah though, man. I’m really pleased with No More Hell To Pay. I could not be more pleased; I think with all of the reviews and all of the comments from the fans worldwide, I would say that everyone else pretty much agrees with that statement.”
None of the ensembles Roxx Regime and later Stryper performed alongside on the Sunset Strip became influential for the composer. “Certainly though, there were other bands that I grew up listening to that were big influences,” he notes. “Bands like Boston; Boston was an influence – the guitar tone and the production. Judas Priest was an influence; the song structuring and the vocal, Rob Halford (vocals), and the guitar tone. Van Halen, when they came on the scene they were a big influence, and just the fire that they had and the rawness that they had – it’s just so cool. Queen was a big influence, as far as vocally. Brian May (Queen guitarist), a big influence of mine in terms of guitar. Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne guitarist), a big influence of mine – guitar tone, guitar playing. There were a lot of bands that definitely influenced us. Journey, Journey was a big influence – we used to listen to Journey all the time. UFO, Michael Schenker. I think that you can hear little flavours of these bands and these musicians in the sound of Stryper. It kind of helped to shape us.”
Albeit influenced by the guitar tone and guitar playing of late Ozzy Osbourne member Randy Rhoads, Michael wasn’t influenced by earlier associate Tony Iommi – Ozzy and Tony having shared a decade long musical relationship in the ranks of Black Sabbath. “I am a fan of Tony, but I didn’t sit and listen to Tony growing up as a guitar player,” he stresses. “I know Oz did; Oz played along to a lot of Sabbath albums, and had every Sabbath album growing up. He’s a huge fan of Tony; Oz had an SG at one point, and wanted to have a band where they would all come out in cloaks. He was really influenced by Black Sabbath, heavily. I wasn’t so much. I mean, I appreciate Sabbath. I like Sabbath, absolutely, but I wouldn’t say they were so much an influence on me compared to bands like Bad Company, and Judas Priest, and Journey, and Van Halen, and Queen. Those bands were a much heavier influence. ELO was a big influence on me vocally, and structure wise. In terms of songwriting, I was really drawn to bands like that.”
The Stryper lyricist was perhaps more enamoured with later Black Sabbath albums Heaven And Hell (April 1980) and Mob Rules (November 1981), those respective pair of outings featuring the late Ronnie James Dio behind the microphone. “Sure, yes,” he confirms. “Oh yeah, I love Dio, man. That’s another one that I forgot about. When I heard the first Dio album (Holy Diver, May 1983), I was blown away like everybody else, and I just loved that style of writing. It had a melodic sense; it had lots of melody, but it was still powerful – the melody didn’t overtake the power, and vice versa. It was really incredible, and obviously he was a great singer. He had a little bit of that blues influence, and his delivery was so awesome. That’s why he’s renowned and known worldwide as one of the greatest metal singers, if not the greatest of all time. Yeah man, a huge fan of Dio. Was he an influence on me? No, because I don’t really sound anything like Dio. I would never try to sound like Dio.”
Nevertheless, Michael has a wide vocal range, more comparable to the late Ronnie as opposed to Ozzy. “Oh yeah, absolutely,” he concurs. “Yeah, he’s got an incredible range. If I’m up there with Dio in range then hey, I’m up there with great company. Guys like Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) and Halford, and obviously Steve Perry (Journey) I love. Those are some of my all-time favourites. Ronnie James Dio. I like guys that are a little… How should I say?… They’re a little underrated. Guys like Robin Zander from Cheap Trick; I think everybody knows that he’s a great singer, but he doesn’t quite get the recognition as some of these other guys. I loved Cheap Trick growing up, I love Robin’s voice. Obviously, Paul Rodgers (Bad Company / Free) is one of my all-time favourite singers. I sound nothing like any of those guys. It’s funny, because I always get people saying ‘You must’ve been influenced by Dennis DeYoung.’ I do hear a little similarity in my tone and my vibrato, but I was never influenced by Dennis DeYoung (laughs). I loved Styx; growing up, I loved Styx, but I always got more into the Tommy Shaw-sung songs than the Dennis DeYoung-sung songs.”
Returning to the central topic of Live At The Whisky, touch-ups were implemented. “There were a few, because there were some bloopers,” the vocalist admits. “There were some notes that were bad, and we obviously had to fix those. What we did is we went into the studio very quickly. With vocals and with guitars, any notes that were wrong where we made a mistake, or where the vocal cracked, or where it was a bad note or whatever, we touched those things up. It’s not incredibly touched up, though – not as much as you would think. A lot of bands go in and literally redo… Like with the Kiss album (Alive!, September 1975). They redid everything, practically. It’s not like that. It’s pretty much how Stryper sounds. If you came to a Stryper show, you’d walk away saying ‘Wow.’ That’s what you get for the most part.”
Rehearsals prior to Stryper’s November 16th, 2013 Whisky performance were minimal. “Sometimes, we don’t rehearse at all; we literally fly out, meet each other, and go and play,” Michael reveals. “Other times, we rehearse for a couple of days. If we haven’t played in a long time and we’re going out and doing a bunch of new songs, then we’ll rehearse for five or six days somewhere – usually in Nashville or Vegas, but sometimes in Boston here at my house. It’s one of the three, one of the three places. Rob and Oz are from Vegas, Tim’s from Nashville, and I’m from outside of Boston.”
Rehearsals concentrated on new Stryper fare. “We concentrated a lot on the new material,” the guitarist affirms. “We just recently added some new songs; we added ‘Revelation’, we added ‘God’, and we added ‘Carry On Wayward Son’ (Kansas cover). We wanted to add some songs that had more to them, like ‘God’’s a very produced song. There’s a lot going on, and so it’s very difficult to pull off live. We had to rehearse that a lot, but it’s been going over really well. People seem to really like the new set. We’ve got all of the classics in there, but we added a bunch of new songs as well.”
Stryper’s setlist for the band’s Whisky jaunt slightly differed. “We added ‘Always There For You’, and we added ‘Legacy’,” Michael cites. “We tried to mix it up a little bit, and then after that show, we added a bunch of other songs. The set list we’ve been performing over the last year has been completely different – well, not completely different, but quite a bit different.”
Altering a setlist is a healthy manoeuvre. One or two compositions aside, many artists tend to leave setlists unchanged. “I know, I know, and you know what?,” the Stryper frontman rhetorically queries. “We’re guilty of that, to a degree. We’re not this band that’s known for hit after hit after hit, so we’ve got a very limited catalogue that people remember and wanna hear. Everybody wants to hear the popular songs – it doesn’t matter how many times you play them. Songs like ‘Calling On You’ and ‘To Hell With The Devil’, ‘Soldiers Under Command’, ‘Free’, ‘Honestly’, blah blah blah. We always play those because if we don’t, the backlash is crazy. It makes it a little more difficult and interesting to try to mix it up, but we do our best. I think we do a pretty good job.”
Nevertheless, there should be at least three to four variations in setlists between tours. “I agree, I agree, and we do that,” Michael stresses. “After the Whisky, we added five new songs. We dropped a few, and added five new songs. It felt like a new set, it really did.”
The live reception of new Stryper material versus old Stryper material is “great”, the singer reckons. “I mean, I think you can look out in the crowd, and see that some people don’t know what we’re performing. They might not have heard the song yet or bought the album yet – No More Hell To Pay – but when we’ve finished the song, the response is as good or better than finishing ‘To Hell With The Devil’ or ‘Soldiers Under Command’ because it sounds really good. Those new songs go over really, really well and the band sounds good playing them, so I think that’s the impressive part. People can’t deny like ‘Wow, this sounds good.’ At the end they respond to that, so that’s really cool to see.”
Certain tracks Michael particularly enjoys performing live. “There are always certain songs that we’re more comfortable performing, and get a little more excited about doing,” he acknowledges. “‘Soldiers Under Command’ is one of them, ‘To Hell With The Devil’. There’s always a surge of energy that comes with playing those songs the minute we start them live between the band and the audience, so that’s always great. I like songs like ‘Reach Out’ live, old, classic stuff like ‘Loud ’N’ Clear’, ‘The Rock That Makes Me Roll’ – those are really fun songs. ‘All For One’ is one of my favourites. Some of the newer tracks I like playing, like ‘Revelation’, ‘No More Hell To Pay’. We just recently added ‘God’. I mean, there are so many tracks that are just really enjoyable and I have such a fun time playing, and I think the other guys in the band would most likely agree with that as well.”
And conversely, certain Stryper tunes have failed to translate to live situations. “There’s quite a few,” the mainman confesses. “We’ve made an attempt to play songs, but they just didn’t have the energy. They didn’t have whatever that was, that magic that translated live. We just ixnayed; we cut them from the set. A lot of those songs are from the album In God We Trust, which I think is due to the fact that it’s overproduced, and that there’s so much going on production wise. It’s very, very difficult to recapture or to pull that off live.”
Nevertheless, Michael likes In God We Trust’s respective numbers. “It’s probably one of my favourite albums in terms of songs,” he endorses. “I just wish that we could re-record it. We do plan on doing that at some point, probably in the next few years. We’ll re-record that, and also re-record some of the Against The Law tracks (August 1990), and maybe even get into re-recording… Another album that I felt didn’t really have its fair shake in terms of production is the Reborn album (August 2005). I think there are a few really cool songs on it, but I don’t care for the drum tones. There were some things that kind of bothered me that I think could definitely be improved upon.”
This proposed second collection of re-recordings is provisionally titled Second Coming, Part Two, following on from May 2013’s inaugural instalment. “That’s exactly what it would be,” the axeman verifies. “We would probably do five or six songs from In God We Trust, five or six from Against The Law, add a couple of brand new songs like we did with Second Coming, and maybe hit a few songs from Reborn. It would certainly be fun. It would be worth doing.”
Stryper plan to begin pre-production on their eighth studio full-length proper in January 2015, as referenced earlier in this feature. “The band will come out here to my house and stay, like they always do,” Michael discloses. “We’ll go down to my studio downstairs – it’s a small, little, cosy studio – and we’ll put in our earphones, our earbuds. We’ll sit there and work everything out as band, and then we’ll go in and start recording on February 1st.
“I’d like to stay on the same path as the No More Hell To Pay album. I think that was so well received. We went back full circle to what we’re all about musically. I think if we stay true to that but add a few little spins here and there and change it up a little bit yet not too much… Pretty much stick to that format. This album will be the follow-up to that album, obviously. It was just so well received. Why change it? Don’t try to reinvent the wheel so to speak. We’ll just keep doing that.”
Further solo material from the songwriter is likely. “The problem with my solo albums…,” he observes. “And this isn’t me crying about it or complaining about it, because I think it’s just a fact. They’ve never really been given a chance. The only time a solo album that I did was really given a fair shake in terms of promotion and marketing was the first one I released back in 1994 (Michael Sweet, April 1994). I was with a label called Benson, and they really made that a priority. They sunk a ton of money into marketing it and it showed, because that album outsold the Stryper album released prior to that, which was Against The Law – a studio album. The compilation Can’t Stop The Rock (July 1991) it outsold two-fold, so it sold double in sales comparatively, and it was a solo album.
“Then I released Real (October 1995), and that didn’t get a fair chance because the label was closing its doors. They did the minute that album was turned in, and then I went and did an album called Truth (October 2000). I signed with a label called Restless, and they closed their doors right before the album got released. They got absorbed by another label, so it literally had no-one working it at all. If you fast forward to the album that I just recently did – I’m Not Your Suicide (May 2014) – it was a very similar situation. I was with a label called Big3, and there just weren’t enough people working that album. They had a very small team, just a few people. It got no marketing whatsoever. Any marketing that you saw was from me for the most part, really pushing it on Facebook and Twitter.
“I would like to see another solo album with a real label, someone that has the marketing and promotion down, but not too large a label. I’ve been really impressed with Rat Pak, very impressed with Rat Pak. First week out, I think the KXM album did over 10,000 units (KXM, March 2014). For a band like that on a small label, that’s very impressive – that says a lot. It’s pretty cool. There’s another label called Loud & Proud, who’ve done a great job. They did The Winery Dogs album (The Winery Dogs, July 2013), and really promoted that fantastically. Somebody like that I’d love to hook up with, and do another solo album, and see it get the attention it deserves. I think if it does, it’ll do well. I think it’ll do very well, because my solo albums are a little different from the Stryper albums, but it’s basically the same ingredients for the most part. I’m the guy that writes the Stryper songs, and I’m the guy that writes the Michael Sweet songs. I produce both, and there are a lot of similarities there.”
January 2015 record Only To Rise pairs Michael with Lynch Mob guitarist George Lynch (ex-Dokken), the debut effort to be issued under the Sweet & Lynch banner. “I’ll tell you what they can expect,” he submits. “It’s an album that I’m very, very proud of, and I know that George is extremely proud of it as well. We’re taking people on a journey back to the late 70s and early 80s, but it’s not done so in a bad way – in a dated or a negative way. It’s done so in a very positive way. It’s got a modern twist because of the production and the sound of it. We’ve got an incredible band; we’ve got Brian Tichy (ex-Whitesnake drummer), James LoMenzo (ex-Megadeth / ex-White Lion bassist), George Lynch, and myself. Everyone just really clicked, and so it sounds like a band. It doesn’t just sound like four guys being put in the studio together to make an album, which it often enough turns out like. Then the magic isn’t there, and that specialness that you get with the unity of four guys a lot of times isn’t there when you do that. It is there with this.
“It sounds like a band; everyone is playing off of one another, and not over-playing. Everybody shines; everyone came to the table, and delivered. It’s really cool, and I think the album itself in terms of songs is great. I couldn’t be more pleased. George created some incredible guitar riffs, and then I wrote lyrics and melodies to them, and arranged the songs. Here, we have this album. What could have very quickly turned into just a mediocre album at best I think is an exceptional album, and I can’t wait for people to hear it as a whole, and to start reading and hearing the feedback on it. I think people are gonna enjoy it; it’s a breath of fresh air in today’s music world, I think.”
Live At The Whisky was released on September 19th, 2014 in Europe and subsequently on the 23rd in North America, all via Frontiers Music Srl.
Interview published in November 2014.